I HAVE Good News
Commencement Speech by Andrew Simonet
Rowan University Department of Performing Arts
May 15, 2019
I have good news.
First, I want to say to all the graduates: thank you.
Thank you for being artists.
Thank you for creating your work.
It’s incredibly important that you’re doing it. This world, this culture desperately need you to do it.
Thank you for your devotion, for the time you put in. In the arts, the hours in class are the least of it. Thank you for all work most people don’t see: those hours in the studio, in rehearsal, in the theater, in the practice room.
Thank you for choosing a life which is not always easy. A lot of people don’t have the courage to do that.
I have good news. The role we artists play in culture is essential and powerful.
A lot of people don’t understand what we do. I have an aunt who, every time I see her—and I ran a dance company for 20 years, I was pretty committed—she says:
“How’s that little dance thingy coming?”
“That must be so fun.”
“You must be so flexible.”
To her, dance is a hobby. Something you do after work. She can’t understand that, no matter what I did to earn money (and I’ve done many, many things to earn money) my real work has always been making art.
I think of artists like scientists, like researchers.
Just like scientists, we begin with a question, something we don’t understand. We go into our studio and research it, we try things out, we experiment. And just like scientists, we share the results at the end. We share them with the public and with each other.
The scientific method and the artistic process are the two most powerful problem-solving methods ever developed. These two methods have created the world we live in. They work on different things. The scientific method works on material questions. the artistic process works on questions of culture, questions of thought and image. And today, many of our biggest problems are questions of thought and culture.
And we artists are the people who discover the new ideas in those realms, the new solutions, the new ways of seeing and understanding.
That is a sacred role.
I have good news. You already have the skills you need to make a beautiful and sustainable life in the arts. I have worked with thousands of artists all over the country, and I can say this: artists thrive when we take the skills and creativity of our artistic practice and use them across all aspects of our lives.
Making a life as an artist isn’t simple, but it’s not a hard as what you’re already doing.
Here’s what you’re already doing, what artists do: we imagine a thing that doesn’t exist yet in the world. We make a plan to bring that thing into existence. We implement that plan, and respond and change as we discover things. And then we deliver that thing into the world. That is a really high level skill set. In the business world, that’s executive level work. If you most hang out with artists, you might think that’s a normal skill set. That is not a normal skill set. And those are exactly the skills we use to make our lives as artists. But too often, we leave those skills in the studio. Outside the studio, we go: “I’m an artist. I can’t make a budget. That’s so hard.” No it’s not. You can figure that out. Act like the genius that you are.
More good news: You have skills that cannot be automated. Ain’t no robots coming to take your jobs. That’s really good news. Twenty years from now, in the robot job apocalypse, you’re going to look around at all the people who are being replaced by computers, and you’re going to say: thank goddess I majored in art.
I have good news. Everything is changing. The ways that human beings create and connect to art are shifting rapidly. No one knows where things are going. You are stepping into a world and an art world mostly run by people my age who, and I mean this literally, have no idea what’s about to happen.
You get to create what’s next.
So if you are ever working on a project or with an organization and you think: God, why does everyone do it that way. We should do it like this. You are right. Whatever that thing is you’re picturing, build it. The world needs it.
When my dance company started, I noticed this thing, I’d say to people: “Hey, I’m going to a see a couple bands on Friday you wanna come? People would say: “Yeah, sounds great.” But when I’d say: “Hey, I’m going to a dance performance on Friday, wanna come?” People would go: “Oo. Gosh. Um.” They’d all ask the same questions: “How long is it?”
How depressing. This beautiful thing I’ve devoted my life to, and when I invite people to it, they go: Please god, just tell me when it will be over?”
So. OK. We had work to do. We wanted going to a dance performance to be exciting, interactive, and accessible. Because dance is too important, it is too useful to be kept to a little insider audience. So we did free shows every month, 45 minutes. We talked to the audiences about the work and de-mystified it, opened up our process. And afterward people could stick around, have a beer and chat with us. Those shows built my entire audience and my entire journey as a choreographer. All because we said: dance performances can be short, unpretentious, and there can be beer. I have good news: there’s beer.
I have good news. Time and money are the only things that can stop you. The artists I see who leave the field, who stop making art, don’t do it because they’re sick of art. They leave because they can’t make the time and money equations work out. The positive way of saying that is: if you can manage your time and money, you can be an artist. Forever. I say this because sometimes we have this sense that: “Oh, it’s so hard to be an artist, this part’s hard, that part’s hard. Everything’s hard.” But really? It’s time and money.
And: Making money from your art does not make you a “real artist.” Nothing makes you a real artist except your devotion to your practice. Period.
For all the parents in the audience, I have good news. Your child’s journey will not look like your journey through life. And that is OK. Artistic lives often don’t make sense from the outside.
When I was 23, my dance company had just started. I was making dances, meeting other artists, we had our own studio that we lived in. It was perfect. And I worked as a waiter. One day, I waited on an older couple, and the woman turned to the man: “Doesn’t our waiter remind you of Andrew Simonet?”
I said: “Yeah, I get that a lot.”
She said: “Really?”
I said: “Cause I’m Andrew Simonet.”
And she said: “What?!”
Turns out, she was the mother of my eighth grade girlfriend. And back in eighth grade, she thought I was going places. I was going to be successful. Ten years later, she was shocked to see me working as a waiter. “What happened?” she said. I thought, foolishly, let me reassure her. Tell her the whole story. So I said: “Yeah I work here, but really, I run an experimental modern dance company.”
That did not help. She recoiled in horror. I was as if I’d just said: “Sure, I’m a waiter, but that’s just to support my real work as a heroin user.”
I have done many, many things that don’t make sense to non-artists.
I danced blindfolded in an abandoned brick factory in Holland. I sold dances on the street to strangers like drugs. “Wanna buy a dance?” A shocking number of strangers did. I performed in tiny venues you’ve never heard of, and in famous important venues you’ve also never heard of. I performed in the nude more times than, well, anyone else in my family, certainly. I danced in Central Park, I danced in a moving car—that was not a good idea, and I apologize to the dancers—and at the World’s Fair, and in the Cherry Hill Mall. On a Tuesday morning. By the Piercing Pagoda.
All of those things made my artistic life, my journey. They were crucial. None of them made a lot of sense from the outside. So, parents, when you think: “Good lord. What the actual heck is my child doing now?” I want you to hear my voice in your head saying: “This is great. This is perfect. This is good news.”
I have good news that sounds like bad news but is actually good news. There is no roadmap. There is no simple path for you to follow. Your journey won’t look like anyone else’s.
The positive way of saying that is: You get to invent it. You will build your life and livelihood just like you build things in the studio: step-by-step, trial-and-error, and by pushing wildly past boundaries and assumptions.
I have good news. It’s not a competition. Making art is not a competition.
The success of other artists is good for you. Any time spent comparing your success to another artist’s success is wasted time. The gap between you and another artist is truly irrelevant. The only gap that matters is the gap between where your work is now and where you want it to go. Focus on that gap, and you will have impact. And impact is infinitely more important than recognition.
I have good news. No one is a verdict on your work. People will love what you do, people will dislike what you do. None of those opinions are a verdict. I won the biggest prize of my career—Yay!—for a dance that the New York Times called, quote, “the biggest disappointment of the evening.” Wow. Confusing. But that piece was not a success because it won an award. And it was not a failure because some critic hated it. It mattered because of the impact it had on our audiences, the conversations it started. Artists: we get to define success for ourselves.
And. The only feedback that matters is feedback that makes you want to get back to work. If it makes you want to give up, ignore it. If it makes you want to get back in the studio, back to your practice, listen to it.
I have great news. You are not alone. You are joining thousands and thousands of makers, builders, performers, questions askers, truth tellers, tradition bearers and tradition disrupters.
Welcome. We are thrilled that you are coming with us.
Whatever your struggles, your doubts, your moments of insecurity, know that all artists share them. You are truly not alone.
We will walk this path together.
And I cannot wait to see what you create.
That is the best news.
—Andrew Simonet, 2019—